Monday, December 2, 2013

Manic Pixie Dream Girl

For those of you who haven't spent hours of your life on TV Tropes, the Manic Pixie Dream Girl is a character who often pops up in films and television programmes. Her purpose is to give the jaded male protagonist a new lease on life, usually by showing him how wonderful the world is when you just go out there and do something fun!

Zooey Deschanel in Yes Man is the one I always think of, but Natalie Portman in Garden State is probably an even better example:

"What are you, shy?!"

The MPDG's purpose is to take the main guy out of his comfort zone and encourage him to enjoy life via a stream of wacky behaviour and randomness. Some people enjoy this trope more than others; I know people who love Garden State and Audrey Hepburn and so forth, but Manic Pixie Dream Girls definitely have their critics. Since the MPDG is mainly there to improve the man's life, she can often seem like she doesn't have hopes or ambitions or a life of her own; as this Feminist Frequency article points out, "women are not here for men’s inspiration or celebration or whatever else. We are musicians and artists and writers with our own brilliant and creative endeavours. But you wouldn't know that from the Manic Pixie Dream Girl trope."

All of which brings me to Arrows, the Polly Scattergood album that I picked up last month after blogging about how much I wanted it towards the end of October.

Now, this is only an interpretation, but I think that Arrows is a deconstruction of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl trope. Right from the off, Ms Scattergood promises to "let you in" so that you see the inside of her "cocoon of angel wings":

Cocoon is a great opener, and the songs that follow offer an interesting take on what the life of an MPDG might really be like. Remember, the Manic Pixie's goal - if not her very raison d'être - is to teach some misery-guts man how to laugh again, but what if it doesn't work? What if the man stays sad in spite of all her zany antics?

Well, it might result in some of the feelings expressed here. The "you" in Scattergood's lyrics seems very unhappy indeed, and Polly herself is a little distraught at her inability to change that:

"As painful as your tears fall, they seem to fall a lot. I'm drowning in your sadness in this room that you forgot."
- Miss You

"I drew a heart shape on your wall and I tried to fill the gaps. The soundscape from your bedroom window was blues and greys and blacks"
- Silver Lining

"What a waste of years, what a waste of time, what an inconsiderate way to just waste what's mine!"
- I've Got a Heart

She has thrown everything into making this guy* happy, and since it hasn't worked, she herself starts feeling a bit down. The last song finds her taking depressants ("the doctor gave me pills to take to stop me feeling quite so awake") and wondering if she should "just drink the day away". While Manic Pixie Dream Girls can usually cure depression by dint of their infectious mania, this relationship worked the other way around, and the MPDG is left deflated and disheartened by her failed attempts to help.

It's interesting, actually. Zach Braff's character in Garden State is clinically depressed; at the start of the film, he has recently stopped taking the medication prescribed by his father the psychiatrist. Natalie Portman's character helps a lot, but in reality, it's unlikely that one cute and cuh-ray-zee girl could cure a genuine disorder. Arrows presents a much more plausible scenario; no amount of wishing wells and china cups and dancing can fight sadness effectively.

And, of course, it never pays to get too invested in someone else's happiness. As Kate Winslet's character in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind says:

"I'm just a fucked-up girl who's looking for her own peace of mind. Don't assign me yours."

*Or girl, since the other person's gender is never specified.

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